Wednesday, 22 December 2010


A few days ago, I delivered the manuscript of my new book, 101 Learning and Development Tools, so it’s perhaps fitting that this is my 101st blog post.

In researching the book, and asking for suggestions for tools, I found widespread misunderstanding of my intentions, and of the scope of the book. A colleague explained this phenomenon to me the other day, with reference to a quote from Henry Ford.

Apparently, when working on the idea of his groundbreaking, accessible motor cars for all, Ford eschewed asking prospective customers what they would want from him, reasoning that they would basically ask for a faster horse. The point being that it is often hard to articulate your needs, and especially to envision new solutions to those needs, when you don’t know what is possible; often we don’t know what we don’t know, and the need for a solution doesn’t become apparent until that solution becomes available, and a new market is formed.

I hope the need for my new book becomes apparent once it’s available – which won’t be until the Autumn of 2011, although it may be available for pre-order on Amazon by the end of summer.

In the meantime, may I take this opportunity to wish all my followers and readers the compliments of the season, and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Friday, 17 December 2010


No, it’s not that it’s that time of year again. Joyful is the translation from the Greek Xerte (pronounced zertay), which is the name of the online course authoring tool my organisation has chosen.

Yesterday a group of us enjoyed basic training in the use of Xerte at our local JISC Regional Support Centre, and came away feeling assured that we’ve made the right choice.

As readers of my blog posts in July will recall, we’ve agonised over the choice of an authoring tool, and it’s taken almost as long to choose one as it did to establish our Moodle platform. We began by defining the criteria we wanted from an authoring tool, and plotted a matrix with these criteria on one axis and the range of possible tools along the other. This process enabled us to eliminate Lectora, Toolbook, eXe and Udutu, among others.

Xerte isn’t perfect – it doesn’t meet all our criteria – but then no other tool did either. However, we are confident of achieving a lot of what we want, and having the scope to develop more, and/or benefit from others developing Xerte further.

Now it’s time to move on and start creating some new content. I’ll let you know how we get on.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Are interns mugs?

What is an intern, or an internship? Is it training? Work experience? A student placement? Volunteering?

I’ve been looking at this recently, and I confess to some confusion. Some internships seem to be paid; some not. But where they’re not, is this just a form of exploitation, substituting a free or cheap intern for a fully-salaried employee? Or is it a legitimate way to gain entry to a new organisation or industry?

Wiktionary takes a narrow view. It offers two definitions, the first of “a student who works in order to gain experience in their chosen field” and the second a more specific definition for medical students. takes a different view: “a person who works as an apprentice or trainee in an occupation or profession to gain practical experience, and sometimes also to satisfy legal or other requirements for being licensed or accepted professionally.” The Oxford English Dictionary goes for “a student or trainee who does a job to gain work experience or for a qualification”.

This question came up, for me, in the context of volunteering. It seems entirely reasonable to me that, just as people give their time freely to public, community or charitable organisations, to make a contribution and/or perhaps to gain useful knowledge or skills, and just as some professionals volunteer their time pro bono, so it may be that those seeking entry to a new career may offer their services free in return for the experience.

This is fine from the volunteer intern’s point of view, but if the organisation uses this as job substitution, perhaps even laying off paid staff to recruit unpaid interns, is this morally acceptable?

My half-formed opinion on this is that we need guidelines. A kind of code on internships. There’s a thorough review of what happens in various countries around the world at Wikipedia. And a provocative discussion forum at interns anonymous.

I’d welcome feedback. Is there a right way and a wrong way to organise and offer internships?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Glorified books?

Perhaps the biggest difficulty I find with e-learning is the narrow view most people still seem to have about it. I posted before about how I fear the term ‘e-learning’ is too contaminated – those who have used it and found it helpful are on board, but many others, some of whom have had a bad experience, some of whom have other prejudices, regard it as too toxic to contemplate.

I suppose this view partly reflects my own concern that, increasingly, the purely online course has limited applicability, and instead we should be looking at greater use of collaborative tools, and more ‘blending’ with offline learning.

To clarify further, what I’m saying is that an online course is typically such a passive experience that it’s really only good for acquisition of facts, figures and information, and at best the gaining of knowledge. A bit like a book, really, and increasingly it seems books are what online courses are competing with.

In the Moodle platform I’ve been using for most of the past year, a course authoring tool is actually called “the book module”. It’s basically recognising that all it’s offering is the creation of an online book. And with the development of more and better digital readers like the iPad, the Kindle and the Sony Reader, this sort of Web-based e-reading is going to look increasingly dated and limited.

We need more interactivity, and not just with automatic and dynamic applications that give the learner a sense of feedback, but with real people, connected through the many collaborative tools that are already commonplace. We need to take e-learning beyond being glorified books, into a place where genuine learning is happening.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Nail on head?

There’s a good column by Daniel Wain in the 11 November edition of People Management, the CIPD journal.

Daniel quotes Charles Elvin of the Open University saying “I am a business person who uses learning for business transformation, and not a learning person who hopes the business listens to me” and goes on to reason that HR professionals making the case for their interventions are approaching problems the wrong way around, “like a workman armed with a hammer looking for a nail to hit”.

I found these comments apposite as I am finalising the manuscript for my forthcoming book, 101 Learning & Development Tools. There’s a danger, in an anthology like that, that I offer a selection of hammers in search of nails. Thanks to Daniel’s timely reminder, I am ensuring that the emphasis in my book is firmly on identifying the business challenges first, before selecting the right tools to help tackle them.

I generally find Daniel Wain’s column pretty good, and I’ve been meaning to find something positive to say about it, since my only previous reference on this blog was to slag it off. I hope this redresses the balance.

Monday, 8 November 2010


It’s been a while since I last blogged – more than three months since my last blog post represents the longest hiatus since I started this blog in 2007. My apologies to any followers, commenters, or readers who may have been disappointed.

My excuses are threefold: my forthcoming book – working title 101 Learning & Development Tools – is approaching the deadline for submission of my final manuscript; my day-job has been very busy; and there’s a significant, albeit very positive, upheaval in my family life (sorry that’s a bit cryptic, but I’m only sharing with family and friends).

Anyway, distractions notwithstanding, I have resolved to get back into the habit, and try to resume my old rate of about two blog posts per month. I’m counting this one. I know that’s a bit of a cheat, but it’s my blog and I can do what I want.

Thanks for reading.

More to follow (I promise).

Saturday, 31 July 2010

More about MOODLE

Thanks to those who replied to my previous blog post.
My quest to improve my organisation's MOODLE implementation goes on. The next phase of development addresses three themes: overall look-and-feel, to make the site more user-friendly and give it more visual appeal; developing micro-sites within the site to support different communities of practice; and (three weeks on) still working on the course content development capability.

We've looked at the Accordion plug-in (thanks, Chris), which is great as far as it goes, but we want a lot more of this sort of scope for learners to become more active. We've compared a lot of alternative tools, and decided against Sana EasyGenerator (sorry, Christiaan), as well as proprietary tools like Lectora and ToolBook. However, this review has at least helped clarify that MOODLE's native course authoring software is insufficent for our needs.

Udutu is quite good, but the new front-runner is Xerte, which is open source and free. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has experience of implementing this tool, especially with MOODLE, or indeed anyone who has opinions on it.

I'm looking for a course authoring tool that creates SCORM-packaged content, integrates with MOODLE, offers easy, intuitive navigation for learners, has a straightforward WYSIWYG interface for authors, and offers a good range of simple templates to create interactive and interesting content. All suggestions still welcome!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Moodle muddle

As mentioned in an earlier post, my organisation is implementing Moodle as its learning platform.

Early days yet, but a big success so far. However, while pleased with the platform, I have been surprised by the limitations of Moodle’s course authoring capability. These limitations fall into two categories:

1. There are limited options for course layout and navigation. We’ve tried using the “topics” format and adding the “Book Module” plug-in, but neither is entirely satisfactory. The book module offers better menu options (although not the choice to show or hide the left-hand menu), navigation arrows on every page, and the option to print each book or chapter. However…

2. The book module doesn’t allow features like activities or questions to be included in a book – as it says on the Moodle website, “the book module is not interactive”. We’d like to keep our build as simple as possible, and with as few plug-ins as possible, but if we’re to persist with any version of Moodle’s own authoring capability, that will mean adding in small apps to offer conceal-and-reveal features, mouse-over options, and other added extras.

So we’re looking at alternatives. Top of the list at the moment is Udutu (which, a little to my surprise, seems to be pronounced “you do too” – there was me thinking it was Swahili or something). The alternative doesn’t have to be open source or free – although that helps – but definitely has to be easily compatible with Moodle.

If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Communities of practice

I was surprised recently to hear a senior colleague refer to communities of practice as though they are a passing fad. The language may have been around for less than twenty years, but communities of practice are as old as human society itself. So what made my colleague think they are a passing fad, and – implicitly – something new?

I think the answer lies in digital technology, the growth of which has empowered communities of practice on a global scale, given them greater prominence, and provided them with lots of new tools and resources. As the tools and resources improve, I think we can expect to see further growth in communities of practice – they’ve become easier to get involved in, easier to manage, and more sustainable.

Communities of practice, as Etienne Wenger explains, are groups of people with not just shared interests, but a shared stake in applying those interests to both practical and theoretical activity. They have a big emphasis on learning, and on sharing the results of learning.

Websites featuring resource sharing and collaborative tools, such as Wikis, blogs, discussion forums, live chat and virtual classrooms, are the new things. Some people – perhaps my colleague – confuse these tools and resources with the community itself, and of course we can expect the tools and resources to change. But as long as the purpose for a community existing remains, its members will keep in touch, stick together, and find new ways to collaborate and share learning.

Some applications of digital technology are fads, and will pass. I happen to believe Twitter is one of them (a subject for another post, if ever there was one), but I’m confident that communities of practice will continue to go from strength to strength.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Emotional metadata

I took part in a workshop last week where the facilitator made reference, en passim, to “emotional metadata”. I immediately thought of Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking Emotional Intelligence, but there’s no reference to it in Goleman’s book, and I haven’t come across any reference to metadata in this context before. (For those unfamiliar with the concept of metadata, it’s basically data about data, or, crudely, how we label data on the Web to enable searches using those terms.)

I was surprised to find emotional metadata is quite a common phrase, yielding 391 Google hits – or 161,000 if you take away the quotation marks. But on browsing those, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. In essence, the idea seems to be about developing search routes based on how people feel about stuff, rather than more information-based definitions. This sounds potentially useful, in that we can use it to find related information that makes users feel happy, or nostalgic, or anxious – or whatever. But I’ve yet to see a demonstrably useful application.

In principle, I’m open to any tools that help us gain deeper understanding based on emotional rather than intellectual responses. By coincidence the day after the workshop where this came up, I participated in another, where the facilitator showed a variant of the diagram (left). He was making the point that our feelings influence our thinking, which in turn influences our behaviour. But I think the diagram is flawed, and the point may be made more strongly – sometimes thinking doesn’t come into it at all, and our behaviour is driven purely (even passionately) by our feelings.

This suggests to me we should all be paying more attention to the concept of emotional metadata, and what we can learn from it.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Mind games

We know surprisingly little about how the brain works, so I’ve been even more surprised by advertised claims for handheld devices with software applications that “train the brain”. And it’s no surprise at all that recent research reports have rubbished these claims.*

As this article in Scientific American, for example, reports, repetition of ‘brain training’ activities improves performance in those specific activities themselves, but nothing more (UK reports say the same). In particular, there is no evidence of transfer of learning to other activities.

This is pretty damning, since many scientists believe the capacity to transfer learning is “hard-wired” into the brain, as we constantly seek ways to take ideas from one sphere and apply them to another. This suggests there are plenty of better ways to prepare your brain – or, more accurately, your mind – to adapt to new challenges.

Transfer of learning is an important issue for learning and development professionals: we are constantly seeking ways to promote learning off-the-job that may be successfully applied on-the-job. These reports could be interpreted as evidence that software applications are unlikely to support learning transfer. However we should be wary of leaping to false conclusions: brain training applications are really just simple games, and worlds apart from software applications, such as simulations, designed to impact on performance at work. Many software applications can help – but brain training is not among them.

* Victoria Coren, in her Observer column yesterday, tried to claim the research is insufficient to substantiate its conclusions. Her argument seems to rest on effects of brain training, unseen for six weeks, having a longer term effect. Coren, usually so incisive and witty, is wrong, as comparison with any other form of learning proves – the key point is that there is no transfer of learning.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Another book review

I am indebted to Professor Martyn Sloman for his generous review of Delivering E-Learning, which appeared in the April edition of Training Journal.

(Time-limited link expired - copy available by personal request to the author.)

Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Those who’ve read my published work will know I’m a great admirer of John Kay, the Edinburgh-born economist, business strategist and Financial Times columnist. I especially enjoyed his two eminently readable short books collected from his FT columns, Everlasting Lightbulbs (on economics) and The Hare and the Tortoise (great case study material on business strategy). Kay is one of the best exponents of the ‘distinctive capabilities’ view of strategy, and has been further endeared to me by his habit of writing while walking in Provence, one of my favourite parts of the world.So I’m approaching his latest book with great interest. I confess I have yet to read Obliquity: why our goals are best pursued indirectly, but I’ve read his introductory article on the subject in Management Today, and I’ve warmed to his themes of maintaining a flexible approach, thinking laterally, always looking out for new knowledge, and taking a roundabout route to success.

These themes ought to resonate with anyone who has ever tried to facilitate learning, as simply reciting a litany of facts and figures is rarely the best way to help people absorb and apply new ideas. People learn better by tackling subjects in different ways, via discussions, reflection and activities, and by interchanging ideas with the facilitators of their learning. It makes sense that the same approach should work in pursuing business goals. Perhaps learning and development professionals have been pioneers in the new science of obliquity?

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Why e-learning DOES work

A response to Mark Walsh

Among the headline-grabbing claims made by Mark Walsh in his trainingzone article published on 19 February are that e-learning “isn’t really learning” and “it doesn’t really work”. Absurd? I think so. Extreme? Certainly, but it soon transpires that that’s what Mark was setting out to do.

Later in the article, he modifies the red-top sensationalism of his headlines and makes the caveat that “much of what I have said is also not fair to all e-learning providers”, and even concludes “perhaps blended learning solutions are the future - bringing together the best of e-learning and traditional training?”

What Mark (or his editor) has done is single out some of the worst practice in e-learning and use it to attack all e-learning. As he concedes himself, he could have done a similar hatchet job on classroom-based training (or any other approach to learning, for that matter).

Mark claims that e-learning can’t train people to do things. He correctly spots that e-learning is good at helping people acquire knowledge, but its limitations in transferring that to behavioural change at work are equally true of every kind of off-the-job learning. I would argue (and did so in my book Delivering E-Learning) that e-learning is one of the best of such approaches when it comes to transfer of learning.

The problem with Mark’s sort of critique of e-learning is that it sets out to attack, rather than to understand. In its rush to dismiss, it ignores the interactivity of cleverly-designed e-learning, it’s huge advantages over old-style open and distance learning, the speed of delivery and unprecedented scalability of e-learning; ignores its capacity to be carried into the workplace via smartphones or handhelds, ignores the power of digital simulations to practice real work scenarios safely and securely, ignores the new approaches to learning digital technology has opened up, and much more; worst of all, it ignores the countless success stories from e-learning implementations all over the world. In short, it ignores the fact that e-learning demonstrably does work.

Mark needs to set aside his prejudice and attention-seeking, and look again at what’s to be learned from e-learning.

Saturday, 27 February 2010


I’ve had a crash course in understanding volunteering in recent weeks, since joining the voluntary sector last year. I should say re-joining, as I had a spell of seven years in the sector early in my career, except that I didn’t really learn about volunteering, as I have been recently.

In the current issue of Management Today, the Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Stuart Etherington, contributes the opinion column, and writes earnestly over a full page about voluntary organisations and charities, but completely omits to mention volunteers or volunteering. Surely this is what the sector is all about?
My current responsibilities include managing (and co-delivering and assessing) a range of SQA-accredited courses in the management of volunteers and volunteering. This has given me greater insight into how we manage people in all organisations: if we consider the motivation of those whose work is unpaid, I believe we get closer to understanding what motivates paid workers too.

We all do things we don’t get paid for at some time or other (even in our jobs). We do them because we want to, because we benefit from them in some way, and because often they’re the right things to do. We don’t always recognise these things as volunteering, but perhaps that’s at least partly because even some representatives of the voluntary sector are missing the point.

I’d love to read comments from others in the sector who recognise what I’m describing. And for everyone else, I can recommend Essential Volunteer Management by Steven McCurley and Richard Lynch.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Silver Jubilee

This year is my twenty-fifth year working in learning and development. I started my first job as a Training Officer (for the Glasgow Council for Voluntary Service) in April 1985; I undertook my first certificated trainer-training course from 1985 to 86; and I took out membership of the Institute of Training and Development (one of the forerunners of CIPD) in January 1986.

So I’m designating this year as my silver jubilee celebration!

This gives me an excuse to recall some of the key developments of my 25 years in this career. Like…

E-learning. Having specialised in open, flexible and distance learning, I should have been better prepared than most for the advent in the 1990s of e-learning, which essentially enabled these approaches with digital technology. But, like many people, I took a while to grasp the full scope of what the new technologies could offer. I find many people still see e-learning as just online distance learning, which is a shame, as it means we’re only scratching the surface of what may be accomplished.

Corporate universities. Despite having been around for more than 50 years, this remains a misunderstood concept. The corporate university, or academy, became popular in the USA in the 90s, and in the UK and Europe in the past decade, but is still poorly communicated. For me, it’s the most significant strategic tool we have, and fits well with the broader use of e-learning.

Talent management. This has become an important idea in HR, but many still associate it mainly with recruitment, and the ‘War for Talent’, when equally important are the applications of key talent development and succession planning. Again, I believe this is something we have yet to make the most of.

Of course, there have been many other big ideas. One which has not fared so well over the last ten years is knowledge management, which in the late 90s seemed set to be perhaps the biggest idea of all. But I suspect we haven’t heard the last of it, and I predict it will re-surface in a new form over the next ten years.

Many of us are working to older retirement dates now, but I doubt I’ll be active in learning and development for another 25 years – perhaps another 15. However long it is, I hope I find as much variety and career satisfaction as I have so far. Thanks to all those I’ve worked with along the way, and please feel free to comment!

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Implementing MOODLE

I’m in the middle of a major new MOODLE implementation. For those who don’t know, MOODLE is an open source virtual learning environment; the initials stand for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, although enthusiasts (and there seem to be plenty of them) also use “moodle” as a verb. More information at

We haven’t yet got to significant content development. We’ve started by downloading the platform to a staging site, and we’re concentrating on the branding and styling, on allocating roles to those who are going to be user administrators, content developers, and those who are going to support learners, and on organising training for them. We have modest plans for some initial content, and a big vision for what the platform can offer us.

I’ve been surprised by some of the language, including referring to every module you can build as a “course”, and surprised that there isn’t really a virtual classroom module, although we’re integrating Dimdim, a compatible open source application.

I’d be interested to hear from others who have experience of implementing or managing MOODLE, and I look forward to sharing more of my experiences as our site takes shape. Comments welcome.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Learning Curve

The learning curve is a bit of a cliché, frequently used and misused. People talk about any new learning experience, especially a challenging one, as a learning curve, which is fair enough up to a point. So what’s it really about?

The learning curve is an S curve. You could think of it as a journey, where you’re travelling along, steadily, on a straight road; then the road turns uphill and the journey becomes harder work; before it levels off again at the top of the hill, and you find yourself making steady progress again, but at a higher level.

Without wishing to labour the metaphor, if you apply it to a work situation, you may be working away steadily until you encounter something new, whereupon you struggle a bit until you learn how to tackle this new development, and then you continue to work away, but now perhaps more productively, or to a higher standard, as a result of the learning.

But this is an example of the classic misuse, which is to talk about a steep or sharp learning curve when what is meant is that the learning is difficult; the metaphor of the uphill journey encourages this misunderstanding. In fact, if the curve is steep, this means the learning is quick and easy; a slow ascent of a more gentle curve would indicate a more challenging learning experience.

Perhaps we should conceive a new metaphor, but the best I can suggest is to reverse the gravity, so that the steep curve goes downwards like a slide, working in the learner’s favour. I’m sure there must be a better way of representing the curve to correct the misuse and render its undoubted relevance greater clarity. Any suggestions?

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